Back in 1975 or 76 I memorized MacNeice’s Cradle song for Eleanor. It was in an anthology of poems we were abusing in class, along with Bagpipe Music and Prayer before Birth, and MacNeice was not one of the poets we were studying. (R.S. Thomas, Sir John Betjeman, and Robert Graves were also in the anthology and they weren’t on the syllabus either. An all boys school, we were DOING “War Poets”. )
Someone should write a thesis on the reasons why English teachers will keep on pushing those "War Poets".
Cradle Song was one of the first poems that cut through the classroom dullness and turned me towards poetry. Far too many years later I have a head full of poems and bits of poems, lines, phrases, images, from Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling to Bunting and William Carlos William, via Old English and God alone knows where else. But Cradle Song, like Kipling’s Three Part Song and Kavanagh’s Kerr’s Ass is special and it's still there.
I am not suggesting that “memorability” is the only test of a good poem. That would be silly. Learning Briggflatts would be a party piece and nothing else, trying to learn the better cantos would just be silly.
I’m not even sure that memorability, in itself, is any sign of excellence. About the same time I learnt Cradle Song I learnt:
I never knew/ until you walked away/ you had the perfect arse/forgive me/ for not falling in love/with your face or your conversation. (I didn’t learn where the line breaks are.)
The old Cadbury Drinking Chocolate ad’ which consisted entirely of:
‘Hot chocolate drinking chocolate, hot chocolate, drinking chocolate”
And a song with the irritating chorus “Coeey chirpy chirpy cheap cheap” and lyrics that began:
Where’s your mama gone
Little Baby now
Where’s your mama gone
And I’m not advancing any claims for any of these as poetry. In fact I would give a fair bit to have two of them surgically removed from my memory. (The Cadbury’s ad can stay.)
What intrigues is how much of the poetry I read and have read is instantly forgettable. It is published which should mean something, politically correct, technically excellent, approved, lauded, prize winning, beblurbed to the heavens, but instantly and utterly forgettable. Sometimes even before I've finished the poem itself.
There are whole collections of poems I have bought, read and remember nothing about.
In one case all I remember is the cover of the book: I don’t even remember its title.
So what is the point of all this instantly forgettable poetry? Why is there so much of it? What purpose does it serve? Why do people write it and publish it? Does anyone read it? Why do I keep buying it?
Answers on a postcard please……